The Rutland Herald (Vermont), Aug. 23

In general, Americans are pretty happy about the state of the economy, which is approaching nearly a decade of sustained growth. But behind that general feeling, there is a divide. If you think the economy is doing better, you’re likely a Republican. If you think it’s doing more poorly, you’re likely a Democrat.

That’s a trend reflected in a recent poll of nearly 10,000 people conducted by the online polling firm SurveyMonkey for The New York Times, released in an article in the paper last week. This trend is one more indicator that our current public life is driven by artificial divisions that have more to say about the fears and concerns of Americans than they do about our actual beliefs and aspirations.

The data came in response to questions about respondent’s feelings and outlook on the national economy; pollsters found that the perception of the direction of the country was more closely tied to a person’s political leanings than any other factor, including their financial condition. The survey found that this may be helping Republicans as they attempt to fend off a so-called “blue wave” in November.

“Among registered voters, more than 80 percent of those who judge themselves better off now than a year ago say they are at least leaning toward voting for Republicans in the midterms. That might suggest that the strong economy is serving as a big selling point for Republican candidates,” the Times article about the survey reads.

But at the same time, the survey might not indicate that this time, as in 1992, the salient issue is “the economy, stupid.” The story goes on: “Complicating that story, though, is the fact that views on the economy have become starkly partisan in recent years. Hardly any Republicans — 5 percent — say they are worse off now than a year ago. At the same time, very few Democrats — 14 percent — say they are better off. Other questions reveal a similar split.”

Roll back to when Barack Obama held the office of president, and those positions were reversed: Republicans felt badly about the economy, while Democrats felt better, according to prior research along these lines. The truth is that the economy is on roughly the same course it has been for the last seven or eight years — steady growth, with stagnant wages. Yet public perception is framed more by party affiliation than other factors. That’s the story in almost any public arena these days. Party lines have overrun common sense, science, compassion and even reality.

This divide is at the heart of the problem with America right now. Without a place of common ground to start from, finding a way to debate how to tackle the vast problems we face becomes much more difficult, even insurmountable. It results in the inability for Congress to compromise on getting even simple things done, or creates situations where the only solution put forth is a highly partisan one.

Has it always been like this, and we just haven’t noticed? That’s hard to say, because research into this phenomenon has not been as focused in years past. But in general, this partisanship has become more pronounced, even as there were political campaigns, battles and debates that were just as bitter and nasty, if not more so, stretching back to the founding of our democracy. It does feed into the general sense — which Donald Trump taps into during his campaigning — that the country has lost its way. This was forged to a great extent during the crash and Great Recession, but our recent political campaigns have often featured the theme of getting back on track, with different images of what it would take to reclaim the path.

The messaging has done its job — when people identify the problems in the country as having to do more with party and politics than underlying issues, it’s easy for politicians to pitch partisan success as a feel-good moment, or motivate the so-called “base” with attacks on the other side. While this works in the short term, this nation has always depended on the ability of its citizens to see beyond red and blue to tackle the great challenges. America has always been able to embrace competing visions and perceptions of our shared experience, while holding on to a broader sense of belonging to a great, imperfect but ever-improving enterprise. The current climate of partisanship has lessened that sense of belonging to something bigger, to the detriment of our country.

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